Advertising for Traffickers

In 2008, one of my students in a global feminisms course I was teaching brought in a Google Ad for dating Indian women that kept popping up on her yahoo mail account. She pointed out how the ad capitalized on a generic image of Indian exoticism both in its images and text. She encouraged the class to consider what type of email they used outside of the university provided one because free email was being paid for through marginalization of women of color.

Bindi Girl Exhibit – Prema Murthy

(amazing feminist critique of exotic erotic images of Indian women)

We had just finished watching two separate documentaries on child sex workers in India at the time and one of the students asked if there was anyway to know whether or not the advertised “dating site” was involved in trafficking. My answer was to send them back to Google to do research. I told them to ask Google:

  1. how it screens its ads
  2. if there are any ethical standards related to safety (ie child safety, anti-trafficking, etc.)
  3. general questions about race and gender in its ads

The responses they received were fairly expected. Google does not screen its ads for trafficking nor check the background of the companies that place ads through Google. Their argument is that the volume of ads placed with them is too high to do the kind of individual human rights work implied by such a check. They also do not choose the ads you receive on your pages, so there is no standard form they could use to determine who sees what, ie boycotting yahoo would not stop those ad from showing up on other sites nor would everyone who used yahoo see those ads. Instead, Google uses a cookie system to track your internet usage that generates ads based on your supposed preferences. Since the program is based on a heterosexual white male model, that means if you spend a lot of time on sites about women, you are likely to receive dieting, shopping, and dating ads or if you spend a lot of time on sites about India or women of color in general, you will receive dating ads specializing in hooking men up with women of color. The assumption in both cases is that you are either a man, needing a heterosexual dating services, or a heterosexual woman needing a man, and therefore needing to meet beauty myth standards. To cover its basis it sends both kinds of pop ups to you.  As implied, these ads not only represent gender bias by centering both male needs and female insecurity but also implicate you in heterosexism and potentially racism, since the ads seldom include sites that are queer inclusive nor those that fail to peddle in exoticism assuming a white male audience looking for the “dark mysteries” of the “exotic erotic”.

Besides the invasion of privacy aspects, this makes Google seem fairly benign. Google does not make the ads nor determine who receives them based on any disregard for your politics or rights. However, the answer also reveals two key issue: (1) Google is primarily a search engine with both human and program-based web crawlers and (2) Google plants cookies to track usage. So why is checking basic information on the people who place ads too difficult a task? It seems that while people are not likely to be forthcoming about using the internet to traffic women, Google’s own search engines should be able to reasonably flag connections to known traffickers and subsequently deny advertising space. Given the volume of ads, it could not guarantee 100% success but it could be a step in the right direction.

The second set of questions has to do with general standards and modeling. There are a number of products whose dubious connection to human rights could easily be excluded from Google ads. While this leads to questions about market based freedoms and potentially freedom of expression that I think are equally important, exclusions have long been a part of advertising strategies for certain markets. A less sticky option, would be for Google to modify the programs that select ads to stop assuming a heterosexual white male norm. Thus when cookies reported you spent considerable time on pages related to women of color, it would trigger a subset of programs that would cross-reference that usage for things like “feminism”, “social justice”, etc. in the same way that it checks larger categories like “women”, “health”, “education”, etc. So that feminists and feminist web sites were not being supported by demeaning or potentially anti-woman advertising. By anti-woman advertising I mean, for example, ads that show large women as disgusting and then try to sell you dieting pills that we all know will likely be recalled the following year for causing all kinds of health problems and even death in users, or more benign ads that focus on a sexualizing gaze at various women’s bums in order to sell you shoes. Imagine these ads popping up on body positive websites.

Take for instance, this blog. I recently discovered that there are similar ads to the one my student brought into class on my blog! These ads show up on pages about women’s sexual freedom and global feminisms. At least one shows up on a post about rape as a war crime. So on the one hand, my text is discussing women’s rights, equality, and to respect women as subjects and on the other advertising is telling you to participate in international heterosexist digital dating which may or may not be implicated in larger trafficking issues. A simple modification to Google’s programming could prevent such things from happening. However, I suspect that these types of ads generate more revenue than an ad for Make/Shift would. (There are also ads for skin lightening cream and hair straightening gel on posts about black women and beauty …)

The discovery of these ads and their offensive and contradictory placement on certain blog posts on this blog brings me back to the larger question about the meaning of “free” raised by my student. I regularly ask my students to think about “free” and “freedom” in my classes. I teach unit on reproductive justice where I point out how reproductive freedoms in the Western world were/are based on reproductive injustices to women of color, incarcerated women, and women in purposefully underdeveloped nations. The speculum itself comes from a myriad of abuses perpetrated against the bodies of enslaved black women and girls. Many advances in certain medical procedures and medications for birth control have been gained through practice or testing on marginalized women with varying forms of questionable consent. My goal in this lesson is to move them past the discourse of reproductive “freedom” to a global sense of reproductive justice in which one woman’s freedom is not bought on the backs of another’s oppression. Yet, it never occurred to me to ask who pays for my free email account? Who pays for my free blog? Isn’t my free lunch free?

For those of you who do not know, unlike other blogs, wordpress places Google ads on free blogs without the knowledge or consent of the blog owners. They recently let this practice be known because of questions raised by bloggers. WordPress claims that these ads offset the cost of providing free services to its 300,000+free blog users. WordPress and Google share the profit from these ads, bloggers receive none. You can opt out of this system by paying $120/year for your blog. Even if you are not as concerned about issues of oppression as I am, umm skin bleaching cream on a black is beautiful post had better upset you, basic math should point out that bloggers are getting worked in this system. If each time an ad pops up Google and WordPress split $1.50 even if each blog only had one visitor a day, that means they are splitting a revenue of $450,000/dy based on our collective labor while we get $120/yr in the form of a “free” site.

So it seems whether you are concerned about women’s and human rights or the market, there is a major problem here with how Google Ads work and for whom they work. Discovering these offensively placed ads on my site has not only made me have to take a good look at my own decision-making but also at the sustainability of this blog.

Ultimately, there was no real resolution to my student’s question nor the research projects and activism that it inspired amongst my students that year. Google is ubiquitous on the internet and so it seemed incredibly daunting to try and fight them collectively. Instead, we engaged in individual choice making in the hopes of making larger change. One of those choices, is that I pass out a handout on how to make complaints about Google Ads. While the most effective way to complain requires a google account and a complicated process for locating the actual complaint area on the page, you can also send a generic complaint via this link. If you see an offensive or offensively placed ad on my blog, please complain about it to Google.

Maintaining this blog, on this site, is a choice and it is a choice that is becoming more antithetical to my support of decolonized feminism every day. If you have suggestions of other blog sites that you are using and happy with, please let me know.

Lady Gaga Take II

Despite the widely circulated petition mentioned in my previous post on race and queer issues, calls by major queer organizations, a twitter and facebook campaign, and personal phone calls from other musicians, Lady Gaga took to the stage at the end of July in AZ after two days of vacationing in the state prior. Regardless of what you think about her decision to hold the concert, it seems impossible to describe her two-days of vacation in AZ as an act of solidarity with immigrants.

Since the political firestorm surrounding Arizona has been in both national and international news for some time and most artists have officially or unofficially signed on to an artist boycott of the state, we have to assume that Lady Gaga understood that immigrants’ and brown people’s rights were on the table when she made these decisions. Though she has, as far as I know or am able to find, never spoken out about immigrant rights or SB 1070 prior, her concert in Arizona provided an opportunity for her to care about people whose basic human rights continue to be at stake.

When the petition to ask her to care went viral and major news media started to report on the controversy, Lady Gaga finally did the minimum necessary to retain her fan base. THE DAY OF THE CONCERT she met with immigrant rights  groups in Arizona. She did not schedule these meetings nor request them On the contrary, queer immigrant right’s activists working with the Dream Act had been trying to get a hold of her since it came out that she was neither going to speak about SB 1070 nor adhere to the artist boycott. Their meeting was scheduled to last 10 minutes. However, the activists managed to eek out 10 more minutes to tell her a heart wrenching personal story about how the SB 1070 had already cost one of them their brother and safety in their own home after a police raid. In Gaga’s version of the story, she says

“I met a boy who is suffering … He told me his house was raided because of a parking ticket or something.”

The boy’s tragedy had such a lasting impact on her, she could not even remember the details of his story a few hours later. While most people have focused on her dedicating a song to him and saying immigration raids are evil, I hope the other half of that story is now sinking in.

A last minute meeting scheduled for 10 minutes after press starts to turn against you, a half remembered story, and a few choice words condemning ICE while on vacation and/or making concert related bank in Arizona by choice is hardly solidarity. When it is not backed up by any actual work for immigrant rights during the time spent in AZ, prior to it, or afterward, it is laughable.

Gaga followed up this makeshift meeting by writing “Stop SB 1070” on her arm in black ink. As you can see from the picture below, her sharpie-activism was barely visible between her tattoos. Worse, it was likely not visible to the majority of concert goers except when captured on one of the overhead monitors.

AP/unattributed

In my mind, anyone can scribble anything on their body and call it a revolution, but without actual social justice work to back it up what does it really mean to the people whose cause you have inked in so un-permanent and un-prominent a way?

She also spoke out at the concert itself. First she called herself “brave” for crossing a civil rights picket line:

Thank you so much for buying a ticket to see my show Arizona. I didn’t used to be brave, I wasn’t a brave person at all, but you have made me brave. And now I’m gonna be brave for you.

Who is she being brave for? The immigrants for whom she showed no interest prior to the concert or even during the initial stages of the petition asking her to care? The immigrants who she finally decided to talk to for 10 whole minutes after it looked like media might turn against her? Or the politicians and business owners in Arizona that support an Apartheid like state in which any brown person is suspect? After all it is these politicians and business people who have condemned the boycott, called it unfair and an act of violence against “good Americans”,  and said that they will rely on other people “who support besieged Arizonans” to bring needed dollars to the state.

Not content to just condemn SB 1070 outright as was needed and called for, Gaga also took time out to disparage the civil rights related boycott saying:

I got a phone call from a couple really big rock and rollers, big pop stars, big rappers, and they said, we’d like you to boycott Arizona, we’d like you to boycott playing Arizona because of SB1070. And I said, you really think that us dumb fucking pop stars are gonna collapse the economy of Arizona?

. . .

I will yell and I will scream louder and I will hold you and we will hold each other and we will peaceably protest this state.

Like many people from the current generation, Gaga seems both ignorant of the effect of both past boycotts and the present one in Arizona to impact lawmakers’, law enforcers’, and every day people’s perceptions of civil rights.  The money lost in Arizona from people canceling concerts, conferences, and other events have had a huge impact on Arizona so far. Despite her mocking description of it as an attempt to “collapse the economy” the boycott has increased conversations about non-violent protest, solidarity, and the power of both individual people and state’s to impact civil right’s decisions that fly in the face of whatwe  claim N. America is about. That has been essential in every civil rights action in this nation that has not had the official support of the government through national level legislation. It has also shifted the policing tactics and the businesses practices of those impacted in favor of repeal or none enforcement. And finally, it has increased the number of prominent people in Arizona willing to speak out publicly against SB 1070. Their voices are essential precisely because when good people say nothing, oppression always wins.

Even if she does not know what the impact of boycotts has been in Arizona, which would of course speak again to her lack of concern about immigrant rights there, history is on the side of boycotts effectiveness for gaining civil rights. The bus boycotts were instrumental in ensuring people like me had the right to sit in the front of the bus, ride the bus when it was crowded, and even sit down in a seat of our choosing even if a white person wanted to sit there instead. The walkouts, which was a form of boycott, were essential in ensuring people like me also had access to education that reflected us and were able to teach at and attend universities. Isn’t interesting that Arizona’s recent targeting of immigrants has also included an attempt to reverse the latter while also enacting racial profiling through transit that would likely force people on to the bus where they are easier to round up and harass?

Despite the implication of the last quoted line from Gaga above, the majority of people involved in boycotts were engaged in peacable protest. The philosophy surrounding boycotts is non-violent. Most importantly, boycotts have been a cornerstone of non-violent protest against both government and corporate oppression in the U.S. since before it was an independent nation.

It was the police who were not peaceful.

Police turned on the hoses, brought the dogs and the rifles, and used them all against marginalized people in this nation asking simply for basic human and civil rights. The police shoved, punched, bruised and even broke bones of protesters as a matter of course. In some cases they killed them or were at least believed to have done so, since most were not held accountable for deaths in custody or shortly after it. What the police did not do, “besieged citizens” carried out themselves with limited impunity. This is the picture of violence related to boycotts not peaceful protesters in search of equality.

One of the most disconcerting things for me, as a historian, has been watching middle class white activists argue that boycotts are “wrong”, “unhelpful”, or “useless” in the face of their import to equality in this nation. These liberals, many of whom have some activist credibility, not only continue to support businesses and economies that have actively excluded, ignored, erased, or even targeted people of color, immigrants, women, queer people, differently-abled people, etc but also actively mocked those wh0 do participate. In boycotts involving feminists or people who the feminist community have called feminist despite contradicting self-identification, they have even gone up and expressed solidarity with the people who are being boycotted for excluding or targeting marginalized people. Somehow the very fact of their whiteness combined with even the most minimal activism, like sharpie-activism, negates an entire national history and reframes equality seekers as the violent and oppressive minority.

Frighteningly, Lady Gaga’s own actions and the desire to excuse her are only one reflection of this larger trend. Both feminist and mainstream liberal blogs, some written by Latin@s (see comment section for real issues), have proclaimed her solidarity with immigrants on the basis of a few choice words couched in a series of economic actions and even more telling longstanding social justice inactions that show how very little she actually cares about immigrant rights. In fact, before the end of her speech, she reframed the immigration debate into one of universal rights that does not even reference immigration:

Tonight I want you to free yourself, I want you to let go of all of your insecurities, I want you to reject any person or any thing or any law that have ever made you feel like you don’t belong.

I’ll tell you what we have to do about SB1070. We have to be active, we have to actively protest, and the nature of the monster ball is to actively protest prejudice and injustice and the bullshit that is put on our society because you’re a superstar no matter who you are or where you come from, and you were born that way.

While I applaud those who understand that all oppressions are interconnected and that everyone suffers from them whether targeted or not, the tactic of taking a specific issue in which one’s actions are implicated and enlarging it into a general discussion of humanism is one that is often used by liberals and Republicans alike to mask their inaction or benefit from specific oppressions. When we talk about how everyone is oppressed and everyone can shine, we stop talking about how Lady Gaga spent two days vacationing in Arizona and 20 minutes talking to activists to cover it up and instead get to pat ourselves on the backs for supporting such a freeing artists who cares about everyone and everything.

Like the apology from Mel Gibson for his misogynist and antisemitic comments several years ago that had absolutely no reflection in his continued antisemitism, misogyny, and racism I find very little lasting credibility in Gaga’s inked arm and statement. I find even less in the activists willing to embrace her as a supporter of immigrant rights.

Let me close by saying that if we really live in a world where boycotts are seen as stupid and violent and scribbling something on your arm with a sharpie and saying “[insert oppression here] is bad” while doing nothing to change it is revolutionary, then we might as well pack it in. There is no social justice here.

—–

images

  • AP/unattributed
  • AP/unattributed
  • AZ Press/unattributed
  • Freedom Bus burned by anti-civil rights people only held accountable in the last 5 years
  • Birmingham Desegregation Campaign/Amistad Resources/unattributed
  • “The Power of Inaction”/J Dilworth

Displaced Women and Children

REUTERS/Alexei Osokin

I have been doing a lot of thinking on the rise of “Ethnic Cleaning” in our world lately. While there have always been examples of people turning on their neighbors and friends because of racial or religious differences from the burning out of entire African American communities in towns in the U.S. to the genocide against Jewish people and anyone who dared to support them under Hitler, sadly, we have examples great and small to choose from. Yet it seems to me that the modern period has seen much more frequent examples of ethnic cleansing across the globe. Worse, in most of these cases so-called super powers have done very little to stop them while they are in progress. We can mobilize an endless amount of troops to go fight for oil in the Middle East, regardless of how many innocent people on all sides die or are permanently warped by the experience, but we seldom rush into the face of great evil against minority people whose only crime is the color of their skin, hair, eyes, or the place where they worship. Human Rights and Corporate Interests are clearly unequal in the eyes of the modern states and we humans are losing.

This week, another vulnerable group fell prey to its neighbors while the world watched. Southern Kyrgyztan errupted in ethnic violence late Thursday when armed Kyrgyz men turned on their unarmed Uzbek neighbors. By Saturday morning, the second largest city in the region is in flames with 1000s wounded and the counted dead nearing the 100s. Uzbek areas of the nation are all but deserted and people fear that even if they survive the violence there will be no food, medical supplies, or water for them to survive the aftermath.

While men were targeted to be beaten and killed, fleeing women and children found themselves trampled in the rush to a secured border and the attempts to cross the intentionally ditched designed to stop them. Like in other ethnic conflicts, these women and children are likely being targeted for specific gendered violence and trafficking and without aid will continue to be into the future.

While you might be hoping to turn a blind eye to this conflict and wait for the moving Hollywood film that comes out in a year or two, the fact is both Russia and the U.S. are implicated in the conflict in Kyrgyztan. Both countries have military bases there and yet neither has responded with requested military aid to the people being systematically killed and burned out of the nation.

The failure to act on the part of either the U.S. or Russia is further complicated by the relationship of Kyrgyztan’s Prime Minister with both nations. Interim PM Roza Otunbayeva, is a college educated moderate with longstanding ties to Moscow, including teaching at Moscow University. She was also the UN envoy to Georgia when violence broke out there. And while Otunbayeva served in a government she herself said continued the corruption and nepotism of the nation’s past, she broke away from them in order to form a party and a platform that would see more egalitarian representation and inclusivity in the Kyrgyztan’s government and society. Her calls for help should have been met with at least some kind of response from Russians who know and have supported her and North Americans who want to continue to have a moderate in charge of a country where the hold a military base. And so one has to wonder why those calls have fallen on deaf ears except for minor humanitarian efforts on the part of Russia. With two major super power’s bases in the nation, violence should never have escalated unchecked to ethnic cleansing and burning cities. In fact a previous conflict between these same ethnic groups in 2007 was quickly put down by Russian troops, sparing huge casualties and/or genocide.

Otunbayeva is also the first female president CIS/SCO member state yet neither she nor the huddled and terrified female refugees of today’s violence have garnered much attention from mainstream feminist press. As of now, I have seen no calls to support a beleaguered female leader or women who are very likely being raped or rounded up for trafficking and certainly are homeless, displaced, and largely trapped at the border with burning cities on one side and ditches blocking their exit on the other. Unlike imperialist feminist calls to “save women” in the Middle East that aligned with western expansionism and hunger for oil and failed largely to ask what women living in the region wanted or needed, hold accountable military and counter-military strategies that targeted women and girls and made it less safe for them to go to school or be in public, or ensure that women’s rights were not discarded by this or any previous administration as they pushed forward, calls to support the women and children in Kygyrztan would align with the requests the PM herself has already made. She has asked specifically for military aid in stopping violence and detaining the engineers of ethnic cleansing in the state. She has also asked specifically for help with the people who have already been displaced and with containing and putting out the fires and other damage raging through the cities.

At this point NGOs in the region are trying to get outside aid to people and hoping that violence can be quelled long enough to restore the constitutional democracy Otunbayeva has promised.

It seems that we feminists need to take a wider and deeper look at the meaning of solidarity and global feminism. And that we people engaged in social justice also need to make more lasting connections between current processes (economic, political, and social) and old “coping skills” (marginalizing, enslavement, rape, and genocide). As I watched the news today I couldn’t help thinking about lost African American cities, the children who refused to save themselves at the cost of their targeted classmates in Rwanda while adult “peacekeepers” divested in Rwanda, the gains one, or possibly two, corrupt military bases could gain from widescale instability in Kyrgyztan, and the deadly shooting of a Mexicano in Arizona weeks before the new pass laws come into effect there. It may seem like these things are not comparable and certainly the scale of some far outweighs the scale of others. Yet, what I am arguing here is that there are cyclical patterns of power and control that ultimately erupt in violence whenever, as the saying goes, “good men do nothing.” Sitting at the intersections of feminism, critical race theory, and history, I think we have plenty of information to do things differently and I find myself wondering why people, especially women and children, have to suffer while we do not use it.

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image two: displaced women and children look on with nowhere to go on Saturday in Kygyrztan. AP Photo/D. Dalton Bennett

Queer Quickies

Jane Lynch makes me giddy with the stupid, always has, and the pic below makes me think getting the state to recognize one’s long term commitment and love for another person might actually be worth it.

unattributed

Then again, I could just be caught in the stupid.

In global news, the first queer couple to be married in Portugal were also lesbians. Teresa Pires and Helena Paixao got married this morning after 7 years of unwedded bliss.

AP/unattributed

And while it is nice to see all of this joy, we can’t forget that Chimbalanga, 1/2 of the Malawi couple arrested for performing a traditional marriage ceremony, is still missing after only being released from custody due to combined internal and international pressure. (UPDATE: according to trans blogs Chimbalanga has been found and did a press conference with her partner Monjeza.)

unattributed

As always, marriage is not at the top of my organizing agenda but when it costs people their lives or their freedom, makes history, or simply brings so much joy to the couple you can’t help but smile, I think it’s worth a mention. If this weren’t a quickie, I would of course have to bring up the race, class, gender (umm, I couldn’t find a single cis blog that reported Chimbalanga’s reported gender) and locational issues surrounding the way these stories have been reported across the blogosphere and in the queer press. It is particularly disturbing that most of the stories on the last piece have eschewed talking about the couple, their genders, political goals in making a public announcement, their activism, and subsequent treatment, in favor of raising the spectre of “Evil, Dangerous, Darkest Africa” and refocusing on homophobia sans transgender issues. These constructions rival the boycott of Jamaica while people are beaten, killed, kicked out of school, denied basic rights of passage (prom, graduation, etc), threatened, harassed, fired, and in the case of the U.S. legally denied the right to work in certain industries (the military) or get married in a nationally, and many cases, state sanctioned ceremony in Western Countries. Trans people are also not included in state level discrimination laws including many of the states that have laws for the rest of the queer alphabet. Thus neither writers in Britain nor the U.S. have the right to claim the moral high ground they have taken in reporting international stories, particularly from Africa and black diasporic countries; their ongoing belief that they do have the high ground in the face of so much violence and exclusion in the West, speaks volumes about why gender and racial tensions continue to exist in the queer community and why so many Black Britains are writing pieces about imperialism in the queer movement these days.

And you thought this quickie was going to be fluffy … like you don’t know me enough by now.